(This baby’s been a loooooooooooooooooooo-ho-ho-hong time coming…)
The views expressed here are the result of recent events and the fermentation of feeling evoked by previous ones. The examples used here are all people personally known to the author, but with names and identities altered. I know I’m not feminist, except in this way, so spare me the anti-rabid-feminist rants. In this post I am referring to certain specific aspects of the attitudes and behaviour of a certain socio-economic-cultural context of Indian society, and in no way do I accept the extension of these views to other contexts or aspects of said society. I reserve the right to recall, expand on or just generally change my mind about the things I say here. In short, don’t fight with me. Or take this personally.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single woman, of Indian origin and aged twenty-five, is desperately in want of a husband.** Well, at least her parents are. The other day, while visiting the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, I went to the screening of a documentary made by an ex-denizen of Bangalore, whose parents accepted a marriage proposal on her behalf somewhere in the 1970s. So what you ask? Well, she was twelve. Yes, you read that right, TWELVE. As in not-even-a-teenager twelve. The documentary***, which must have taken immense courage to film, let alone screen, just blew my mind. One of the questions she repeatedly asks her parents is how they thought that she, as a twelve-year old, could have been expected to understand the significance of the question she was being asked, when asked if she wanted to marry this man. Juxtapose this with the average Indian child’s punishment for daring to indicate the possibility of disagreement with a parent****, especially a father, and one can see how she acquiesced, if in fact a twelve-year-old’s acquiescence to anything other than “Shall I serve the ice-cream?” can be taken as a considered decision. Heck, in the average Indian family it’s easy to see how any person [usually a girl, alas such is our life] would go along with what has been chosen for him/her by the all-powerful, awe-inspiring [in the good old testament sense], how-dare-you-speak-in-my-presence father.
Of course, as her father blustered, she wasn’t married till she was sixteen (one month and bit short actually) which was the legal age back then, and it was a very good proposal from a good boy, who would let her study and grow under his aegis. It would have been a shame to pass it by. These are the same parents who married when he was 30 (acceptable, just about) and she was 20 (practically an old maid in that generation), and sent their daughter to school and bought her books when she wanted to read. Some sort of madness gripped them when the uncle who came with the proposal approached them, perhaps the fear that she might marry ‘some unsuitable boy, from some other *gasp* caste or even worse, *faint* religion’. (Patience, coming to that.) Chandra had a daughter when she was still sixteen, and lived in her desperately unhappy marriage to a not-horrible, not-evil man, until she decided to escape on the pretext of going to the US to graduate school, after divorcing her husband and leaving it to him to tell the world. To his credit he did sign the paperwork required to permit her, his wife and naturally chattel, to travel abroad without his protective presence, knowing full well that it could be the end of their marriage.#
The usual reaction to these situations once narrated in India is to say that well in those times people were not educated; the girl herself was economically dependent on her family and thus had no choice; the mother was dependent and indoctrinated in rural values and couldn’t stand up for her child; other people, including the university professor husband’s friends, could not intervene in a family matter; the parents were doing what they thought was best for their child according to all they knew. That some of these qualifications are true and others are questionable, to say the least, must be mentioned. That said, my purpose isn’t to explore the problems raised by that situation, however tragic it was. My concern is with the very immediate present, and the things that still happen and, even worse, are still accepted in Indian society today.
We have come a long way since the 1970s. Many women are encouraged to study, even the marriage market will sneer at a girl without a Bachelor’s degree. Many more are encouraged to work, even after marriage. People today are urban children of urban parents, and fairly distanced from the complex web of rural conventions that create the mindsets/conditions for a situation like Chandra’s to arise. Even so, the strange phenomenon is the startling rise of this very rural mindset among the very liberal/liberated, educated upper middle class. The consequences of this phenomenon for India’s women are deeply disturbing.
This documentary comes hard on the heels of a series of deeply disturbing experiences that have affected the lives of many women I know, of my age and my milieu. To begin, let me state that these women are all from what I call twice-educated backgrounds, in that their parents are highly-educated, usually in medicine, engineering or the sciences, conventionally seen as more ‘rational’ disciplines for whatever reason, and proudly part of the liberal middle-class, and they themselves, these women I know, are educated and independent. They have all been raised in metros, and while they probably were not encouraged to go and meet boys, they were certainly not kept confined away from the society of males, just as they were not indoctrinated into the rural belief system that ensures the continued power of the caste-system in this day and age.
This girl, I shall call her Carla, comes from a fairly wealthy family from a certain corner of the country. Carla’s father is a neurosurgeon, a rather successful one at that. They live in a very nice part of a bustling metro, and despite the mandatory visits to the rural motherlands, are very much an urban family. Her mother is also educated, though to be honest I’m not entirely sure of what she does. Carla was sent to boarding school, a famously liberal co-educational school, and then went on to study in one of the most prestigious colleges in said metro. She moved to another city to study further, with the full support of her family. There she met Karim, possibly the nicest male to ever evolve. Seriously. The kind of guy that, if your daughter brought home you’d rush to the temple with tears in your eyes to break coconuts, if you did that sort of thing. Tentatively, the two started to go out, and at some point it came to the attention of Carla’s loving, liberal parents that their daughter was seeing someone who did not belong either to their community, let alone the subcommunity, or to their religion.
All hell broke loose. The parents demanded that Carla never see or speak to That Boy again, even though they were studying mostly the same classes on the same small campus, and had most of their friends in common. “You’re too young!” the parents avowed, “You don’t know how to judge character! How can you know he is right for you?”## The parents had never really met the boy, or tried to get to know him, or seen what his relationship with their daughter was like. Carla and Karim, for their part, had made no declarations of eternal love, marriage and babies in a baby carriage. Just a statement of interest, in the present. The mother, whose health was never too stable, began to have attacks and spells of various kinds, and in the interests of peace, Carla gave in and told her parents she had ended it with Karim.
Of course, no such thing had happened, something the parents could not or did not want to see. Carla continued to live in the Second City, she continued to have her relationship grow and thrive, and she decided to just wait few years and prove to her parents that she had made an informed decision, and that the community differences between her and Karim did not sabotage their relationship, which would show them that they had no need to be concerned for her and could give their consent (yes I’m simplifying). She stayed on to work in Second City, landing a good job at a prestigious firm, with great benefits and complete independence.
One day her parents called to tell her it was time she was married, and that ‘people’ were asking about her single status. She replied saying that she was very happy with her life as it was, thank you, and felt no compulsion to get married. Her mother began to ail again, entreating her to have a care for the family status in the community, and that of her own parents’ in the family. They were receiving proposals for her from VERY eligible partis, and there she was, educated and worthy of a good match, at just the right age. Carla, under immense pressure from her parents, who held that studying was the only acceptable reason not to get married, nearly had a nervous breakdown and decided her only hope was to leave the country to study further. Far away in a VERY cold place she soldiered her way through her degree only to find that it really wasn’t much defence, since the expectation was that as soon as it was done she would be back in India, to get married.
Her degree over, she decides that the time has come to break the news to her parents that she is still and very seriously involved with Karim, and that they plan to be married, sometime in the future. She begins by telling her father, who takes it quietly, expressing a little worry over how her mother will take it. A collective sigh of relief is heaved. Three days later, everything goes haywire. Her mother says it is impossible. There is no way that this union can be countenanced. None at all. Carla would have to choose, in 24 hours, whether she wanted her parents or Karim. If they accepted such an unholy alliance they would never be able to show their face in public again! They would have to relocate! Carla’s sister’s chances of a good marriage and a non-bleak future would be forever destroyed! No, Carla was just going to have to decide. They would back off and let her remain single for ever if she chose, letting her move to a different city, far away, and never speak of this again. But allow her to be with Karim they would not.
Carla is devastated and distraught. She cannot make such a choice. Karim is shattered. His presence is what is causing her such pain and trauma. And the hamster goes on. Around the wheel, over and over. There is no argument that can defeat “He is not one of us”, and there is no choice that will leave Carla happy. This, then, is the cost of parental love. For if you were to ask them, they will say, as they do believe, that this is the best for Carla, and there is nothing that motivates them save her own best interests, and they are doing this because they KNOW it is the only way she can be happy.
Pinky is from a particular community. She went to a coeducational school, and her parents are both intelligent, articulate people. She is an only child. Pinky gets an MSc in a very contemporarily relevant scientific discipline, and secures a place in a HIGHLY prestigious PhD program abroad. She has been seeing Rahul for a long time now, they started going out in high school. Rahul is perfect, in that he is from the same community, EXACTLY so. He’s an engineer, one of the most lauded professions in India, and heads off the the Land of the Free and the Brave for further studies. While both Pinky and Rahul are abroad, their parents get together and certify their relationship with a nice religious engagement ceremony. All the family is told, as are all the friends. There is much rejoicing over how nicely it has turned out.
Except it hasn’t. Pinky realises she doesn’t really love Rahul. They did have a lot in common, once, but this is not true anymore. She realises that she wants to end the relationship. Naturally, Rahul is upset by this. Convinced that it is merely the distance, he asks her to reconsider. Her parents are shocked. They also think that this is a phase, that she will get over. She tries. But nothing changes. She still does not want to spend the rest of her life with Rahul. She tells her parents that she is convinced of this, it’s not that she wants to marry someone else, it’s just that she doesn’t want to marry Rahul.
Pinky’s parents lose it. They are incredulous. They cannot believe that their daughter is doing this to them, after they have publicly announced the engagement! They tell her there is no way they can accept her decision, especially after the whole family has been appraised of it. She will just have to marry him and deal with it. Pinky protests that to do so would end in a divorce, which is far worse than a broken engagement! Her parents refuse to accept the argument, saying that once she is married and has a few kids she will not want to leave him. The battle rages over years, and Pinky finally has her way, but not without acquiring a deep aversion to India and the society she comes from.
These two I’m clubbing because they are essentially the same story. Girl studies, girl gets good steady job. Girls turns 25. Parents acquire match for girl. Girl says she doesn’t want to get married, she’s happy as she is. Parents are oblivious. Girl repeats. Over and over and over. Parents tell her to shush, its just nerves, once she’s settled she’ll be fine. Exhausted, girl gives in. Girl marries guy she doesn’t really want to marry, girl moves to foreign country, and the rest is yet to be seen.
Very similar to 3&4, in 5 we have a boy, who happily marries a girl he has known a long time, because they are both at the ‘right’ age, and they know each other, they get along, they are friends, they fit in all the other socially required ways. One day, six months into the marriage, she walks out. It’s not personal, she just never wanted to get married in the first place. She’s made it out, on the strength of her choice, but the boy is left devastated – whether he ‘loved’ her or not, he is suddenly deserted in a very public way and will carry the stigma, and yes it IS stigma, of divorce with him all his life. All of which could have been avoided.
Here are the things that disturb me so much about all this. In the first two cases, the girls fought. They are still fighting. One of them might have to make a life-shattering decision. It is the parents I cannot understand. How can a parent, when seeing a child visibly ailing, getting thinner, unable to sleep, deeply disturbed, how can a parent insist that they are in the right? Not that there is a moral right or wrong about this, except to promote the happiness of the person you love, articulate your concerns about the path they choose, and then support their choice. Is it an overflow from the Always-Right-Indian-Parent issue? Or of the What-Will-People-Say issue? Probably a(n un)healthy mix of the two.
A common assumption that underlies society is that children are the future. The entire purpose of procreation is to follow the shining road into the future. The reason we bust our butts and earn money is to ensure our children have a better future than they would have had if he had not, and better than the past we ourselves had. And, the one aspect that is most unpleasant, one day we will die and our children will live on beyond us. So why is it that a parent wishes to force a child along a path that, while it starts in keeping a parent happy, a noble aim, will in all probability end in a bitter, lonely life for the child, once the parent who is happy is no longer there?
Ah but is it to ensure that they do not end up alone and in pain that parents do this, one might argue. Agreed, a parent knows a lot more about life and its travails than a child, at least in this context. Granted, parents have access to life-experience that we don’t. They know about the realities of marriage and the differences which seem small in a world-for-two, but can become terrible in larger contexts. But it is also the job of parents to equip their children to think for themselves and trust their own judgement. Parents cannot protect children forever, and at some point must have faith in their own abilities as parents, and believe that they have taught their children well, allowing them to make their own mistakes. To insist on one’s ‘superior judgement’ in a situation where the child is obviously deeply distressed is crossing the line between the desire for the best for the child and needing obsessive control of the child’s life. Of course, much of this has its roots in the traditional unquestionability of the parental decree, whereby no child dare hold an idea or opinion that differs, even if slightly, from that of the parent, let alone be opposite to it.
Thirdly, and what worries me the most, is what 3, 4 and 5 show. These women are capable of independent lives, they HAVE independent lives. They ARE educated and economically independent. Yet they give in. Don’t get me wrong I am in no way criticising these people for taking the path they felt they could best handle, and I do not believe that it is easy, not a whit. The worrisome aspect is the fact that they cannot seem to fight the imposition of parental will, even with the advantages of education and independent income, even with the backing of middle-class liberalism^. What does this say about the situation of women in India today? There is definite empowerment of the women who DON’T come from these backgrounds; ironically the inheritors of progressive Nehru’s legacy are the people who seem to be slipping into this grotesque social regression. It’s like the oft-cited phenomenon of expatriate communities being far more conservative and rigid than the societies they came from in the home country, except it’s happening inside the country.
* I was going to go with Indian Woman, or Indian Parent, when I realised it’s kinda more widespread than that!
** What you thought I wouldn’t use the Great-Grandmomma of marriage traditions?
***Sorry I can’t for the LIFE of me remember the name of the distributors of the film, hopefully the acrostic one will leave it for us in the comments…
****You got it, another post.
#Chandra then partied wildly in the US for a few years, went to Germany to study, where she met her current husband, and finally decided to settle in Canada, with the hope of having her daughter join her there. Twelve years after she left India, she decided to return and find out what had happened in the thought process that set in motion those terrible years she had lived. I hope she finds her peace, however hard the path. If you’d like to acquire a copy/find out about a screening, contact Pedestrian Pictures.
##These are not actual words, just convenient stereotypes to summarise the gist of the arguments and the degree of drama involved.
^Not much backing I agree, but in theory…